The Manzanita

By Rob Moore

One of the greatest joys as a designer of native gardens in California is working with Manzanita (Arctostaphylos). I can trace my interest in these plants all the way back to my early childhood. One of my favorite pastimes at this early stage of life was taking road trips with my grandpa to the backcountry of San Diego County. We would drive up Old Highway 80 to a roadside spring known as Ellis Wayside rest stop, where we would eat lunch at a picnic table under the Oak trees.

We can use manzanitas to replace imported plants.

I was fascinated with the history of that meandering old concrete highway and the circuitous path it wound through giant boulders jutting out of the chaparral. Manzanita covered the hillsides and I remember being intrigued by their smooth red bark and how green the country side was year-round.

Today, estimates vary with regard to how many species of manzanita exist throughout California’s Floristic Province; from forty into the hundreds if you include cultivars, subspecies and hybrids.

Arctostaphylos is a diverse group with varieties occurring in Mediterranean areas with predominately clay soils, sandy beaches, and colder mountainous regions made up of rocky acidic soil. Manzanitas are typically located in regions where the heat and dryness of summer are offset by cool air in the evening coupled with higher rainfall totals in winter. This is especially true of most of the cultivar and hybrid species grown for landscape purposes in California.

Utilizing cultivars and hybrids in native gardens is a common-sense approach with regard to availability as well as a way to honor the people who have championed the use and preservation of California’s native flora.

A perfect example is vine hill manzanita ‘Howard McMinn manzanita’ (Arctostaphylos densiflora). This plant was a selection introduced by the Saratoga Horticultural Foundation in 1955. The original plants were provided to them by Howard McMinn, who discovered and collected seed from a stand of vine hill manzanita near Sebastopol, Ca. It is fitting that this outstanding selection was named for him reflected by the Award of Merit from the California Horticultural Society in 1956. Howard McMinn manzanita is also a nectar source for the Monarch Butterfly and a great addition to the butterfly garden.

Arctostaphylos ‘Lester Rowntree’ is another hybrid with a rich history. Its parentage includes pajaro manzanita Arctostaphylos pajaroensisand it was introduced by Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and named for early native plant pioneer Lester Rowntree. Rowntree was known for drawing heavily upon her extensive fieldwork and writings regarding our native flora’s natural history and how these plants would behave in domestic gardens.

Another excellent choice for the home landscape is Baker’s manzanita  (Arctostaphylos bakeri ‘Louis Edmunds’). Like the aforementioned, Louis Edmunds is an upright variety that can adapt to many climates making it an excellent choice for a screen or as a focal point. The open habit of this manzanita shows off its beautiful chocolate branching habit, which contrasts well with glaucus leaves. Clusters of pale pink urn-shaped flowers bloom in late winter or early spring offering hummingbirds a good nectar source when few other natives are in bloom.

Mexican manzanita (Arctostaphylos pungens) Photo: Rob Moore

Louis Edmunds Manzanita is a horticultural selection of Arctostaphylos bakeri from the northern coast discovered by plantsman Louis Edmunds and introduced by Saratoga Horticultural foundation in 1962. This hearty selection works well in sun to part shade and can tolerate more water than most manzanitas.

I certainly would be remiss in neglecting to mention John Dourley manzanita (Arctostaphylos ‘John Dourley’). A personal favorite of mine, this hybrid is a dependable ground cover with a mounding habit 2’ tall by 6’ wide. New growth foliage has appealing red tint fading to gray-green during summer months. The clusters of pink flowers are abundant over a long bloom season followed by purple-red fruit. A. ‘John Dourley’ was named for John Dourley (horticulture director at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden during the 1970’s) by native plant champions Mike Evans and Jeff Bohn of Tree of Life Nursery fame.

Manzanita has a rich history in California. Beyond the aforementioned historic figures outlined above, California’s Native Americans utilized the decorative berries and leaves for beverages such as tea, extracts for headaches and lotion for relief from poison oak.

Today as forward thinking landscape professionals and homeowners, we can use manzanitas to replace imported plants.  Here are some commonly used, non-native landscaping plants and native manzanitas to try instead:

Common non-native landscaping plant Native manzanita alternative
Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis) ‘Howard McMinn manzanita’ (Arctostaphylos densiflora)
Privet (Ligustrum) Mama bear manzanita (Arctostaphylos ‘Mama Bear’)
Escallonia ‘Howard McMinn manzanita’ (Arctostaphylos densiflora) or sentinel manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Sentinel’)
Caprifoliaceae formely Abelia Sonoma manzanita (Arctostaphylos ‘Sonoma’)

From child to adult, Manzanita has continued to hold a special place in my heart. I have always been and will continue to be grateful for Mother Nature’s gift to California, the manzanita!

Rob Moore is a member of the CNPS Orange County Chapter  and specializes in designing ecologically balanced gardens/landscapes in Southern California where he is the owner of California Native Garden Design. This article first appeared in his blog.


  1. Very informative, Rob. Both Howard McMinn and John Dourley are still flourishing in my now 9 year-old native garden. Maybe one more manzanita would complement them,an upright form.


  2. I am desperately searching for burned Manzanita seeds or seedling for my sons weeding in June. We would like to grow 80+ seedlings to give as wedding favors. Any advice or help would be greatly appreciated. Cheers!

  3. Thank you so much for the info! It’s my favorite plant and the Theodore Payne foundation has so many varieties that I needed a little help deciding which ones to get. 😉

  4. wanted some info on the seeds of this tree for dogs. Are these red berries poisonous for them? How can I deter them from going after them? they seem to be drawn to them….

    Thank You for your help in advance

    Dianne L. Barron

  5. Very nice to have this information! My gardens include McMinn, Louis Edmunds, and Pt Reyes (uva-ursi) manzanitas. I would love to know if there are manzanitas that like to “climb” up a trellis. I live in Santa Clara County where so many California native plants thrive (including the nearly 200 that are on my tiny property).

  6. I live in Southern California an hour west of Palm Springs. Would a Manzanita Plant do good here? If so where is the best place to buy one? Thank You

    1. Ponderosa pines provide a lovely filtered shade, which is a bonus for so many different plants where summers are hot and dry.

  7. I live east of Redding and am looking to buy at least 10 Manzanita plants. Are there any nurseries in the North State region that sell Manzanita? Thanks in advance!! Kim

    1. You might consider looking at Wyntour Gardens or a few of the native plant shops in Chico! Unfortunately Redding doesn’t have a ton of native plant shops.

  8. I love manzanita. It covers the hills where i live in the sierra a sculpter and like nothing better then picking my way through areas where the giants grow and die.sand thru the bleached out grey of a dead one to discover the beautiful wood underneath.

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